Playing Chicken – For Arts Charities, Not a Game for the Faint of Heart, Because, Well, It’s Impossible and Doesn’t Make a Compelling Case
I read an article recently called A Day Without Art. Stephanie Milling suggests scenarios in which the arts hypothetically disappear for a day. But hypothetical threats are terrible tools of advocacy.
We can’t not have art. Look at your coffee cup, even if it’s paper. It has form, function, and looky there, art on it.
Here’s the ant at this particular picnic:
If art is ubiquitous, does it have value? Why pay for it?
Rather than forecasting the impossible – a day without art – could we better spend our energies measuring our specific organization’s specific outcomes and advocate by trumpeting those to the world?
No one responds well to this particular game of chicken. It’s akin to the idea of eating your kids – it may solve the messy bathroom problem, but it’s neither realistic nor sustainable.
Women’s issues are not about women. Race issues are not about people of color.
And when Mars attacks Oklahoma, the issues will not be about Oklahoma.
I visited a domestic abuse nonprofit. They do great work, but are ghettoized by donors as a “women’s issue” charity. The executive director wondered how they might be able to globalize the cause (and increase revenues).
“Domestic abuse is a societal problem,” she complained. “And I worry that without some men providing disinterested advocacy, we’ll only attract women donors.”
But every time she interviewed qualified men for marketing or development positions (and they’d graduate to a final 10-on-1 group interview), the staff and board balked. “Just not a good fit,” they’d euphemize. And they’d recommend another qualified woman.
Is your charity’s issue exclusively yours? If not, how are you communicating that?
What I want:
An arts charity that makes my community better.
Value to the community:
Safety. Knowledge. Personal Power. Issue solutions.
Provocation. Entertainment. Populism. Progressiveness. Mischief.
Educational residencies in both art and topic.
Every other charity, educational institution, or NGO with similar values.
50-50 split on revenues with partners. Partners open their mailing lists to help themselves financially through ticket sales.
The measured outcomes of the partners. Quantity of classes, students, and schools participating.
Populist results defeat the arts’ elitist reputation. The needs of the charities are filled.
Enough so that all artists receive at least $15/hour (in 2014 dollars) and no full-time hourly rate is more than 4x anyone else’s.
Arts moves people to action. Thorny issues seen can never be unseen. Life is better.
I was going to write about all the charities to which Donald Sterling donated.
I was going to ask if the standards of the organization should stand up against the horror of the donor.
After all, UCLA gave back $3 million of Sterling’s money.
Then I was going to ask about donations from companies that peddle “evil” – tobacco, liquor, oil, etc.
But then I thought about individual donors’ morals. Not just unethical oligarchs like Henry Ford, Rupert Murdoch, John D. MacArthur, or even Sterling. What about all the philanthropists whose fortunes were built on a million broken backs? Or a few? Or one? And I thought about my experiences with morally corrupt donors.
Deep in your soul, you understand that you have no idea what you’re doing. You’ve been faking it for years.
You have years of experience and an important-sounding title. But you know the truth.
Now that it’s time to hire someone to report to you, who do you want?
“Someone young I can mold,” said an ED acquaintance recently. What he meant was, “Someone who won’t outshine me in front of my board.” Idiot.
“Someone who has fought the fight,” said a board member I know. “Someone who can offer great perspective and can innovate intelligently.” Wise.
We are imperfect. We have weaknesses. So when you accept that you don’t know everything, the best thing you can do is hire to those weaknesses.
When you do, you’ll be a leader. Until then, you really are a fake.
Nonprofit Arts Organizations – Are you aware that the other parts of the sector believe that you’re stealing money?
In most nonprofits, a donor gives and someone else benefits. Food banks solve hunger, which promotes family stability, which stimulates re-entry into society for the impoverished. Environmental nonprofits encourage clean air and water, which promotes health, which supports longer, happier lives for everyone. Many religious organizations sponsor high morals (“Do unto others…”), which provides a sense of community, which fosters a safety net.
In the arts, the donor and the recipient are often the same person. The donor gives to a company, the company produces a performance or exhibit, and the donor/recipient enjoys the event. The arts are seen by many as elitist and unworthy of support.
We in the arts have to recognize that there is an enmity-laden relationship between arts nonprofits and all the other charities.
And then we have to do something about it.
Recent impressions from an interview for a development director position at a well-known theatre.
Managing director picks me up at airport. Interviews me in car. First impression… he drives, in more ways than one.
Dinner for eight. Laughs, rowdiness, and Malbec. Second impression…an uninhibited group.
The play. Well-performed one-man show. Third impression…no money.
The interview marathon. 6½ hours, no breaks. Fourth impression: disorganized thinkers.
Complete silence. For over two months, despite leaving message for managing director on his cell. Fifth impression: brutal place to work.
Sent email taking myself out of the search. Direct quote from board president: “I don’t know the protocol in the nonprofit world. In the engineering world, where [we] are both from, you don’t hear anything unless you are hired.” Final impression: they’re horrible at human relations…must be why they have no money.
I’ve been working with nonprofit arts organizations (mostly theaters) for most of the last twenty-six years. Executive/Managing Director for ten. Marketing and Development Director, too. Consultant for nineteen, the last two full-time.
Raised several million dollars (not by myself, of course!). Increased attendance by hundreds of thousands, mostly by engaging young people.
I’m now looking to regroup. Enhance one brilliant mission. Make life better.
I’m currently based in Seattle, so the I-5 corridor from greater Portland-BC would be optimal. Additionally, I’m very interested in relocating – but to the right place: Chicago, San Diego, Eastern Michigan, NY/NJ/PA, or DC would be fantastic (personal networks in those regions).
I don’t come cheap. But I’ve proven that I’m worth it.
All I need is a company looking for greatness; more than the sum of its programming.
Interested? Click here.